The dangers of geoengineering
I've long been a proponent of exploring various "geoengineering" responses to global warming, but that's largely because I'm a pessimist about our political system's ability to address the issue in anything even approximating a timely manner. The idea that geoengineering will be easy, however, is slightly insane. Ryan Avent explains:
[T]he question that stands out most to me is just why these geoengineering advocates think that it will be easier to do grand scale, highly unpredictable projects that will affect the earth’s climate in a significant fashion in just a short amount of time than it will be to continue on the path we’re currently following, negotiating for emission cuts. Really, have they thought about this?
Begin with the fact that politicians are extremely risk averse. Who wants to be the guy in charge of the effort to build the who-knows-how-many-billions-of-dollars 18-mile-long sulphur dioxide tube? The downside risks are enormous relative to the potential upside benefits.
And why have they not noticed that the public isn’t exactly enamored with intellectuals at the moment, particularly where global warming is concerned? Think about the conspiracy theories being spun on the right at present and then extrapolate out to what might happen if the United Nations determined that massive amounts of gas ought to be pumped into the upper atmosphere.
But the real failing is the inability to consider the way that various interest groups are likely to act. In the best-case scenario for geoengineering, costs are likely to be focused on certain groups and certain locations, and those groups may respond to the proposed solution by doing anything from demanding compensation to threatening war, depending on their severity. If risk models indicate that certain particularly bad outcomes might result from the project with certain probabilities, and they will, the potential for those outcomes will be negotiation flashpoints, potentially leading to intractable divisions between countries.
Geoengineering seems like the easy approach now, because it’s not on the table. There is no hysterical battle between proponents and opponents, no op-ed bickering between scientists and faux scientists, no global debate on who would and should bear which costs associated with whatever solution is agreed upon. But as soon as it became a real possibility, a fierce debate would rage. And, if one major geoengineering solution were tried and it failed, it is difficult to see how another attempt could win support, and at that point, of course, we’d have lost the ability to address climate change by reducing emissions when it would have helped.
Geoengineering tends to be favored by conservatives rather than liberals. In part, that's simply because it's an effective retort to a policy liberals support. It's possible that an actual geoengineering proposal would unsettle even the theory's most ardent backers. But it's also one of those weird moments when you realize that conservatives aren't necessarily more skeptical of the government than liberals are. They're just skeptical of different things.
Conservatives tend to be very wary of government efforts to intervene in the economy or in social policy. Health-care reform, for instance, is considered far beyond federal capacities. But invading Iraq and rebuilding its government was seen as a perfectly sensible effort for the government to undertake. So too with deploying untested technologies to refashion the reflectiveness of the upper atmosphere. Liberals, conversely, tend to pale at the complexity of these interventions,.
It's also worth noting that both "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" both included a vision of geoengineering gone horribly wrong. And it wasn't even a different form of geoengineering: It was literally efforts to cut the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. So we can't say we weren't warned.
Image credit: Sotti/Creative Commons.
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